If you’re looking to get into the movies of Australian New Wave director Gillian Armstrong, do not start with “Oscar and Lucinda.” Reach back to her 1979 feature filmmaking debut, “My Brilliant Career,” an exhilarating feminist work in which a determined young author (Judy Davis) refuses to accept the misogynistic expectations thrust upon her from birth. We’ve seen this story before, but Armstrong and Davis imbue it with a prickly passion that would mark Armstrong’s best work prior to her 1997 movie about two compulsive gamblers undone by the most peculiar of wagers.
In “Oscar and Lucinda,” Davis was initially supposed to play the role of Lucinda, a wealthy heiress obsessed with glass-making. She’s drawn to Oscar (Ralph Fiennes), an Anglican minister who shares her love of gambling, and ultimately commits to a bet over the delivery of a glass cathedral from Sydney to a difficult-to-access area of Australia. The film is an interesting companion piece to “My Brilliant Career,” particularly in its portrayal of Oscar, who, quite unlike Sam Neill’s suave charmer in Armstrong’s earlier movie, is a bundle of nerves. Had Davis played Lucinda in ’97, she would’ve eaten the jittery Fiennes for lunch in every scene. We would’ve expected it because Davis, who’d been nominated for two Academy Awards by this point, could do this role in her sleep.
Cate Blanchett, however, was a completely unknown quantity outside of Australia before she took over the role. Her Lucinda is stirringly confident dealing cards and taking money from men, to the extent that it could be difficult to understand what she sees in Oscar. But we had no point of reference for Blanchett. I hadn’t read the book prior to seeing the movie, so I didn’t know if Lucinda was a bunch of bluster or every bit as steely as she seems. Her truth lies somewhere in the middle, but, even though the narrative is disappointingly predictable, we never get ahead of Blanchett. Scene to scene, she’s all surprises. The film ultimately fails her, but the few of us who saw the film theatrically walked out knowing we’d seen someone special.